Trade & Human Rights: Clinton, China and Interdependence

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This column is written in the wake of President Bill Clinton's decision to continue Most Favored Nation (MFN) status for China. Much of the commentary responding to Clinton's decision focuses on the fact that it reverses one of his most visible campaign promises. Since political figures change direction with some regularity, the fixation of the press and policy analysts on the reversal theme, almost to the exclusion of the merits of the case, points to a broader concern. It arises from a review of the China policy along with those toward Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. The fear is that there is no central guiding theme in the Clinton policy, no framework within which specific policies are elaborated with attention to diverse cases but with a broader purpose directing specific choices. The Clinton administration's response to this critique is that the state of the world does not allow for a grand design; there is no single unifying threat, so there can be no one integrating principle to guide policy. Fundamentally, the administration's response is sound, but it fails to convince most observers because it seeks to explain too much. Even in the face of a world of multiple, disconnected problems, there is a standard of coherence and consistency demanded of the policy of a major power, a standard which the first eighteen months of the Clinton policy has not yet met.

The best defense of the policy which can be mounted is to stress the administration's argument about complexity and diversity in the world and then to turn to specific issues to show why previous policy perspectives are not adequate for the 1990s. The human rights policy toward China provides the opportunity for such specific analysis. My own reaction to the Clinton decision on MFN is to judge it at two levels. First, the merits of the specific decision. Given the multiple objectives of U.S. policy toward China, I find the continuation of MFN status defensible, but I would have imposed more stringent costs, through multilateral and bilateral policies, for the lack of any Chinese progress on central human rights issues like freedom of religion. Moreover, while it is wise to move away from the rigid review formula which produced the 1993-94 policy quandary, Clinton did not provide an alternative framework for review of Chinese policy on human rights. Briefly, the basic decision can be defended, but the policy framework lacks specific constraints and criteria for future judgments.

Second, the China case can be looked at as an example of the changing context in which a human rights policy must be elaborated. This argument requires a broader review, essentially distinguishing three stages of human rights policy that have now produced the issues of the 1990s.

The first stage runs from the late 1940s through the 1960s. This is the "UN stage" of human rights policy. At the heart of this period is the promulgation of what Professor Louis Henkin called the "UN Bill of Human Rights," consisting of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent covenants and conventions which specify the Declaration's meaning. The essential contribution of these texts is that they cracked the shell of state sovereignty, transforming human rights violations from the realm of "domestic jurisdiction" to a concern and responsibility of the international community of states. This move established a fault line in world politics, although the implications of the move were not visible for the next twenty-five years; indeed, the full meaning of this international responsibility for human rights will only become visible in this decade. The reason for the delayed reaction is that the onset of the cold war in the late 1940s smothered the UN role on human rights. The ideological struggle of the superpowers pervaded every dimension of world politics. The UN documents themselves became a point of contention as the West defended "political-civil rights" and the East argued that real rights were "socioeconomic. …